Gitmo: A fetid and cancerous symbol

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OCCASIONALLY, apparently unrelated episodes will align to reveal an important truth. So it is with three events reported in the last few weeks. The first happened sometime Wednesday, when another prisoner killed himself at Guantanamo Bay — the fourth suicide since the base opened. As is its wont, the military was tight-lipped, refusing to describe how the prisoner, who was Saudi Arabian, finally escaped from Cuba.

But we know how these things have happened in the past. Last year, three prisoners at the base hanged themselves with strips of knotted cloth ripped from clothing and bed sheets. Each had a ball of cloth stuffed in his mouth, apparently to muffle any reflexive choking sounds as he died.

They left suicide notes that have never been made public. One of the three prisoners, Yassar Talal al Zahrani, from Saudi Arabia, was 21 at the time of his death but 17 when he arrived at the base. Another, Mani Shaman Turki al Habardi al Utaybi, also from Saudi Arabia, had been designated for release. The Pentagon has refused to say whether he knew of his pending transfer when he killed himself.

After the first raft of suicides, the Pentagon vowed there would be no more and instituted a crackdown, which summons to mind the sardonic warning "the floggings will continue until morale improves." Security was tightened dramatically. Today, most prisoners — even those cleared for release — are held in a new, super-maximum security prison. They pass endless hours locked in concrete cages, removed from the sight, sound and touch of other human beings.

The administration has concluded that about half of the prisoners at Guantanamo pose no threat to the U.S. or its allies. Most of the rest are held based on admissions they made in countless interrogations over five years. And that brings us to the second recent event. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported on a major study by the Intelligence Science Board, a group of experts commissioned to advise the U.S. intelligence community on interrogation practices.

For people who have been following these issues, the findings were predictable: The aggressive interrogation techniques adopted by the administration after 9/11 are "outmoded, amateurish and unreliable," as the Times put it. They are a relic of a properly discarded past, abandoned not out of any moral compunction but because of "a more practical critique": There's no evidence they work. Dr. Randy Borum, a Defense Department consultant, noted: "There's an assumption that often passes for common sense that the more pain imposed on someone, the more likely they are to comply." But there is precious little evidence to back it up.

Of course, most people simply do not care about these matters. They are as distant as Darfur, as remote as ancient history.

But in fact they may not be as far removed as they seem, which brings us to the third event. On May 15, Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, the British intelligence agency, gave an important speech in London. Dearlove ran the agency in 1999-2004 and was an early supporter of the administration's response to 9/11.

But more recently, Dearlove has concluded that it is time for "a strategic rethink." Our methods have become counterproductive. Al Qaeda and its viral offspring are thriving, and the position of Britain and the U.S. has become "strategically weak." The problem, according to Dearlove, is that our methods create more terror than they prevent, and it has become "easy for Al Qaeda to recruit its foot soldiers."

Dearlove understands what the president does not. Our policies have given terrorists precious tools to use against us. We have made potential recruits out of countless Arabs and Muslims. As our policies persist, their anger grows, intensifying into a defiant, and increasingly understandable, rage.

This explains why Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates have called for the most enduring symbol of these policies — the prison at Guantanamo Bay — to be shuttered. They too understand what the president does not: The prison breeds terror. It stands as a fetid and cancerous symbol of hubris and hegemony, a threat not just to the U.S. but to our closest allies around the world.

From three stories, a single truth — it is past time for Guantanamo to close.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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